Soylent: Nutritious and Ambitious
Positioning first as a breakfast staple, and later a lifestyle brand
In January of 2013, 24-year old programmer Rob Rhinehart spent a month eating nothing but a self-formulated and self-made concoction he described as a “thick, odorless, beige liquid.” Rhinehart named the product “Soylent”, after popular Charlton Heston film Soylent Green. Unlike it’s namesakes, which was made from actual people, Rhinehart’s Soylent was based on a rigorous (though non-professional) analysis of the various “raw ingredients the body uses for energy.” Over his month-long trial, Rhinehart recorded his mental and physical performance and made alterations to his formula.
His alleged results were superlative, “my physique has noticeably improved, my skin is clearer, my teeth whiter, my hair thicker and my dandruff gone. My resting heart rate is lower […] My working memory is noticeably better. I can grasp larger software projects and more complex scientific papers more effectively. My awareness is higher. I find music more enjoyable. I notice beauty and art around me that I never did before…I used to spend about 2 hours per day on food […] Now I spend about 5 minutes […] the average American spends $604/month on food […] at personal scale, (Soylent) costs me $154.82/month”. Matching these results is Rhinehart’s equally bold ambition to revolutionize the global food industry.
This past summer, Soylent raised over $1 million in crowd-funded capital, as well an additional $1.5 million in seed funding from the likes of Andreessen Horowitz and Lerer Ventures. Despite this customer and investor traction, the question remains the same: “will Soylent be able to produce a profitable and sustainable business model?”
Rhinehart’s Lofty Goal
Rhinehart’s vision is to replace food as we know it by providing an all-in-one solution to nutritional needs. His goal is to provide Soylent at a price point of $5/day, and still leave room for a small profit margin (it is currently priced at $10/day). On a personal level, Rhinehart wants to bring Soylent to those too poor to afford nutritious food. Currently, his plans include tailoring the business and product for the mass-market. However, by failing to target specific markets and overlooking the importance of implementing a proper strategy, Rhinehart will struggle to achieve the sales needed to achieve scale and lower cost per product; making it unfeasible to sell for $5/day.
Finding the right market
Soylent’s proposed goals are poorly matched with its current capabilities. As of now, Soylent is burdened by attached capital with profit targets and requires extensive funding to build manufacturing infrastructure. In its current financial position, advocating offering minute profit margins is a poor way to attract investor capital. Only once manufacturing plants and distribution networks are established could Soylent have the luxury of providing the product at near-cost.
As of now, Rhinehart should focus on a strategy that will achieve the first and most important goal: bringing Soylent to the right market. First, Rhinehart needs to clearly identify Soylent’s most effective target consumer. As a health food product, it is highly nutritious, beating out all competitors from a sustenance standpoint. However, it’s still in an early stage of development making it unappealing to a broad set of consumers due to its unappetizing look, lack of flavour, and one-formula-fits-all format. Without immediate improvements to these characteristics, Soylent will struggle to gain sustainable traction.
While Rhinehart hopes to bring Soylent to the underprivileged population in the long-term, he is currently without the volume to produce a profit while selling Soylent at close to cost. In terms of composition, Soylent is well-positioned to be the most nutritionally complete meal supplement in the market. As such, it is best geared towards a developed market where consumers are increasingly conscious of the content of their meals and are well-versed in the benefits of healthy foods.
Consumer health-food segments are growing quickly and hold a lot of potential, generating revenues of $32 billion in 2012,which are expected to double by 2021. Although Soylent effectively functions as a meal replacement, narrowing the product’s scope to a specific meal would appeal to a wider demographic that wouldn’t feel locked into an overwhelming “Soylent Lifestyle”. Meal supplements are consumed by users for a myriad of reasons, but primarily for their convenience and health benefits. Were Soylent to brand itself first as a breakfast supplement, Soylent would be positioned as the most efficient product in the market for the most important meal of the day. Positioned solely as a morning meal, consumers will be more receptive to adopting the product, as mornings are naturally the most rushed time of day.
A Breakfast Favourite
In order for Soylent to successfully capture a larger part of the market for breakfast food in the developing world, it must make aggressive investments into R&D to develop different flavours, textures, and, more importantly, customizations to fit the needs of different body types. To spur interest from new customers, Soylent should implement a 30-day free trial period. In exchange, customers would be asked to provide feedback and suggestions on which flavours and textures they like best. The insights from this initiative should prove extremely valuable, given the product’s infancy and need for continuous refinement. Free trials also work well as a marketing tactic, generating word of mouth advertisement. Furthermore, this testing phase would shield Soylent from negative reactions of mass-market consumers, by receiving continual input to develop and strengthen Soylent’s brand in the product development process. Soylent should delay full product roll-out – which is currently planned for December 2013 – until it can integrate this feedback.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Once Soylent has developed its product portfolio, it can then focus its attention on branding itself as a lifestyle product. With a diverse selection of colours, tastes, and supplements for different lifestyles, Soylent has the opportunity to further generate a loyal following. Soylent undoubtedly holds a level of advantage over other meal supplements because of its nutritional efficiency, but with product development, an identifiable brand, and (future) endorsers, it will position itself very strongly. One of Soylent’s prominent advantages is its ability to eventually replace all meals, providing consumers with sufficient nutrition for months, years, and possibly forever. Compounded over its use, consumers stand to save enormous amounts of time and money. As a long-term option, consumers will have legitimate incentives to adopt the “Soylent Lifestyle”.
Soylent’s current brand recognition is concentrated on the West Coast (and major urban cities across the US). As an initial roll-out phase, Soylent should partner with a respected company in the food nutrition space (such as GNC) that could offer products in select stores. This partner would fill orders on behalf of the customer and forward it to the online platform. Due to Soylent’s product quality, customer retention should be an easy task assuming a smooth distribution system is maintained. This will be facilitated through delivery of Soylent right to customers’ doors, and assistance in the process will be directed through Soylent’s online platform or through its in-store partner.
Soylent is not without its weaknesses when targeting a fairly saturated breakfast market. With large incumbent conglomerates like Kraft and Kellogg, it is essential that Soylent quickly develop a niche following. These long-standing giants (founded in 1903 and 1906 respectively) have an abundance of resources from which to draw upon to defend their position. An agile organization among them could even attempt a copy-cat product and utilize their retail relationships to capture the market ahead of Soylent because recipes aren’t patentable.
Potential competitors from the private label meal replacement industry consist of Unilever (SlimFast), and Abbot Laboratories (Ensure) each of whom have sizeable market shares, and the capital and infrastructure to release a breakfast-specific Soylent competitor. However, the overall industry remains fragmented with over 230 firms in the US. With low barriers to entry and low switching costs, Soylent has a tangible opportunity to offer a unique value; a full diet supplement with complete nutritional value. Further, Soylent is well positioned to create a loyal following, and with further product development, market testing and branding, it can defend its market share from the larger players.
As his own product’s guinea pig, Rhinehart experienced first-hand the effects of his product’s testing phase, proving it was not ready to be consumed on a regular basis. If similar challenges arose with new product versions, it would pose a significant risk to Soylent. SlimFast’s 2009 major recall of its ready-to-drink brands illustrates the need for extensive product testing. Even with significant health benefits, Soylent can easily fall prey to a few cases of negative publicity that could derail its ability to bring the product to mass market. To mitigate such risks Soylent needs to market the product as part of a healthy diet, emphasizing limited daily consumption – similar to the warnings of energy drinks – and not the foundation of a diet as Rhinehart had initially recommended. Only upon further testing and feedback should Soylent broach the conversation of diet supplements.
So What’s the Next Meal?
Soylent would be well suited to focus exclusively on product development in the short-term. By building a loyal following, expanding its product line and extensively testing its formula, Soylent can position itself for mass market consumption. Until that point, Soylent must endure the necessary growing pains before arriving at the right strategic recipe.